29 August 2010

Why Suzanne Collins is a Gutsy Writer, OR, Why The Hunger Games is a smarter series than Twilight

Warning: This post will contain spoilers for each book in The Hunger Games series. If you have not read them before and would prefer not to be spoiled, then get them read and then come back.

It's no secret that I don't like the Twilight books. I have made that abundantly clear in various blog posts and personal rants over the years. My primary complaints rested in the weakness of the main character, whom I found altogether to repulsive to like, and a male lead, whom I found far too sappy to be in any way tolerable. Other complaints rested in Meyer as an author completely unaware of her own message and the cop out of having her main character be so spineless and unwilling to consider consequences for actions.

Ahh, but then I discovered The Hunger Games.

It was such a breath of fresh air to read a book - probably the first since Harry Potter that managed to find a book that lived up to the mass hype it had received. It was bold, entertaining, and so wonderfully different that I couldn't stop talking about it. It was one of those books that mattered. A book that could be read by a person at any age and still mean something.

The trouble was, Collins gave herself an almost impossible set up for American readers. Americans are big fans of tight, happy, fairy tale endings. It's all part of that American Dream mentality. We like the couple to get together. We like what Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest calls fiction: for the "good to end happily, and the bad unhappily." But it wasn't going to be that easy in Panem - not with the complicated set up Collins gave herself. Panem wasn't a nation that had barely entered some kind of complicated, oppressive government - Panem was a government with a 75 year long tradition of sick, public mutilation. Obviously the ultimate goal of the book series wasn't just to survive the game itself alive, but to survive the government - surviving the game wasn't good enough.

That's a huge task, particularly in a government so intricately structured and varied and unpredictable as the one Collins created.

This is why, I think, the last book in the series will raise some eyebrows. Is it perfect? No. Is it still pretty darn brilliant? Yes. Is it going to please most American readers? I'm not sure. Most of the Twilight obsessed teen crowd will likely be disappointed by the lack of romance in this book compared to the others. In fact, the resolution of the "will she or won't she" conflict between Katniss and the two men was almost an afterthought, because it really didn't matter as much as everything else (though I still think I could have done with at least a proper send off for Gale. Not that I thought Katniss should be with him - I didn't - but I felt as though his character deserved more credit than he was given.)

All the same, Collins dared to write a book that was not happy and did not end entirely happy either. Readers who wanted a story full of hope without the taint of dread that it was all too good to be true at the end were not going to find it in Katniss, who, as a narrator, had enough scarring after the first games she participated in to make her suspicious of every good thing for the rest of forever. Katniss is wary, and with good reason. Things weren't ever going to be cleanly finished.

But that isn't the point, is it?

As far as I'm concerned, the most important part of that last book was in the transformation of Peeta, who has always represented the hope for a better future. No matter what has been thrown at him in the past, Peeta always managed to keep his chin up and find the bright side of things, without being Pollyanna like, but by being practical. He was an incredible judge of character. Until the Capitol got hold of him and addled his brain. Throughout the entire book he is fighting for himself back - trying to figure out what is real and what is not real. It's even turned into a game. Isn't that the point Collins has been making all along? The importance of asking yourself what is and what is not real? In a society so steeped in "keeping up appearances" and glamorizing the grotesque for the gain of others - isn't that the whole purpose? If that was her purpose, then she accomplished it wonderfully.

Did the government miraculously turn pure and clean overnight? No. Will Katniss and Gale and Peeta and all the rest of them ever lead "normal" lives? No. But have we as readers learned a little something about where our values are? Hopefully. Is there hope for their future - and ours? Definitely.

So thank you, Ms. Collins, for writing a series that took nerve. Thank you for making me think. Thank you for providing me with endless conversations with friends and students about the value of entertainment and the value of reality. Your books are masterful.

26 August 2010

Reverse Angle

In film, a reverse angle is when you film something from the opposite side of what is considered "normal". For example, a dinner table scene is usually filmed from one side of the table only. To film from the other side is disorienting and a bit harsh on your audience.

I feel like my life is a pretty decent representation of a reverse angle at the moment, because it is so, so very different from last year. Last year I came home after the first day of school overwhelmed and worn out and not sure I would be able to handle everything that went along with teaching three classes of seventh graders. I honestly didn't think I would survive until May. This year I came home after my first day of school thinking: "Gosh, I love this - I am glad to be back in school!"

Such a strange thing, but so refreshing. Do I love planning lessons for four classes I haven't taught before? Not particularly. Do I love grading? No. But I do love working with students and trying new things and seeing excitement and growth and enthusiasm. I love the chance that I have to be a complete unabashed dork for the sake of keeping teenagers entertained and interested in a stupid syllabus.

In other words: life really is wonderful when you are doing something you love. I have nothing more profound to add to my life right now except a strong, wonderful sense of contentment. What a luxury that is - how many second year teachers have this feeling? I don't know. But I do love that instead of teachers treating me like I don't know anything, they're treating me with high expectations and excitement. It's such a delightful little shift.

In other other words: *smile*.